The first six months of the apprenticeship were unpaid, but Leathers considers that a bargain. Zulueta says apprentices often pay top tattoo artists between $5,000 and $10,000 for the privilege. His own client roster includes former NBA star Dennis Rodman, film director Jim Jarmusch, actress Marlee Matlin, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. So far, Leathers’s best-known client is U-M basketball player Manny Harris. Leathers gave him a shoulder tattoo of a wolf’s head with the inscription “Kill or be killed.”
Zulueta, fifty-six, was born in Washington D.C. to Filipino parents and raised in Hawaii. He’s slender, with his long silver hair in a ponytail and a few lengthy chin hairs forming a wispy goatee. Leathers, twenty-six, has hair even longer than his teacher’s. When not tied behind his head or wrapped in a knit hat, his dreadlocks hang to his waist.
Spiral Tattoo has a relaxed feel. A Steely Dan CD mixes with the buzz from Leathers’s tattoo machine. He’s tattooing two Japanese Kanji characters on Heather Moore’s back, between her shoulder blades. The characters translate as “soul mate.” Across the shop, Mansfield is tattooing the same characters on the forearm of Heather’s husband, Michael. Michael is home on a two weeks’ leave from serving in Iraq, and the two are getting the tattoos to celebrate their fourteenth wedding anniversary. Nearby, Zulueta draws an elaborate design on a client’s left leg—a diamond around his knee with patterns above and below.